For some Americans, what they celebrate in Kamala D. Harris’s historic run for vice president is not just that she is the first Black or Asian American woman in the role, but the first graduate of an HBCU.
Fellow former students of historically Black colleges and universities see the California senator’s journey to the presidential ticket as inspirational, yes. But many also view it as unsurprising and inevitable that an HBCU alumna would rise that high — and one day perhaps, higher.
“Howard leads, Black women lead, we see it every day. I think it’s exciting to see it on the world stage,” said Kristi Henderson, the owner of a marketing firm and a Howard University graduate.
That sense of confidence, pride and conviction are also hallmarks of an education that marries coming of age in a majority Black community with instruction steeped in Black culture and history, several HBCU alumnae said.
“We see leadership come out of HBCUs all the time. It’s rooted in a strong sense of self. I went to a White graduate school — at other schools, they don’t teach you about yourself and recognize everything that you are,” Henderson said.
The Los Angeles-based 43-year old went to the London School of Economics after graduating from Howard. She credits the personal foundation she built at Howard while “not having to worry about being ridiculed because of your race, but being celebrated,” as the reason she could succeed in a program where she was one of three Black people in a class of around 200.
“Black students — young people, in general — don’t see ourselves reflected in history books, leadership roles, the list keeps going. People come to an HBCU from every walk of life and from all over the world — it dispels the idea of Black people being monolithic and really gives you the opportunity to flourish, learn and bask in everything that is Black and great,” Henderson said. “In every class, from statistics, history, science, mathematics, communications — it was all rooted in understanding who we are as a people and understanding our responsibility and a commitment to our community.”
“When you’re at an HBCU,” Harris said in a Washington Post profile last year, “and especially one with the size and with the history of Howard University — and also in the context of also being in D.C., which was known forever as being ‘Chocolate City’ — it just becomes about you understanding that there is a whole world of people who are like you. It’s not just about there are a few of us who may find each other.”
“I became an adult at Howard University,” Harris said. “Howard very directly influenced and reinforced — equally important — my sense of being and meaning and reasons for being.”
Created as educational sanctuaries for Black Americans who were kept out of other institutes of higher education, HBCUs were integral in creating a Black American middle class. There are over 100 today.
Many prominent women who have shaped American culture graduated from HBCUs. Howard, often referred to as “Black Harvard,” educated writers Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston.
But Howard is far from the only school that’s produced remarkable graduates: Toni Braxton graduated from Bowie State University, Gladys Knight went to Shaw University, and tennis champion Althea Gibson went to Florida A&M University. Comedian Wanda Sykes went to Hampton University. Oprah Winfrey went to Tennessee State University.
Two other women said to have been considered for the position of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s vice president are HBCU grads: former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams graduated from Spelman College and Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms graduated from Florida A&M University.
The cultural impact is huge, and may become greater as the institutions enjoy a higher profile. Recently, MacKenzie Scott announced a $1.7 billion donation to several schools including Howard University, Hampton University Xavier University of Louisiana and Morehouse College. The $40 million that is going to Howard makes it the largest single donation in its history. (Scott’s former husband, Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post. The Lily is a publication of The Washington Post.)
“The fact is, HBCs played an integral role in every African American’s life, especially if they’re middle class or upper middle class, or had any opportunity in this country. They gave us that first shot,” Hampton University graduate Stephanie Young said.
Young, 36, worked in the Obama White House and is now the chief communications and culture officer at nonprofit When We All Vote.
She says her father, who also went to a historically Black college and served on the board of three Black colleges, had a philosophy that “HBCs give you more than an education. They give you a grounding for who you are as an African American.”
At an HBCU, Young said, “you are immersed in Black culture in a way that you will never be again in adulthood as an African American living in this country.”
“You leave there feeling more confident in who you are. Not just as an adult, but as an African American in a country where people see race first, and also teaches you how to excel as a Black professional, and the pride you take in that. And a family that will last you your entire life,” Young said.
‘If you don’t know who you are, if you don’t know where you come from, how are you going to be a confident person of color in this country?” she said. “If your parents aren’t able to give you that, if other institutions don’t give you that, the HBCU can actually step in to fill those gaps.”
Like Harris, she’s a member of sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, a lifelong commitment and network. It’s also a steppingstone to leadership, Young said.
“You have to have a high GPA, you have to have community service. You have to show that you can balance life pretty early on,” she said. “You learn those leadership skills pretty quickly in those organizations. It’s expected of you.”
For Alix Etienne, going to a Black college was something she knew she wanted from middle school. When it came time to go, she chose the all-women’s Spelman College in Atlanta, where her great-grandmother had graduated in the school’s second class. Her father’s alma mater, Morehouse, was also nearby.
Etienne, 29, wanted not just a Black college, but a Black women’s college. Her professor and the president of the school looked like her. Black women authored the textbooks and papers she studied.
“It was important to see myself in curriculum,” Etienne said. The environment “demonstrated all the different ways I could grow into the Black woman I could become and aspire to be.”
Harris’s ascension has buoyed those feelings.
“There’s so much pride in you and your college and who you are.”